Delacorte Press, 2018, 510 pages
Spensa's world has been under attack for decades. Now pilots are the heroes of what's left of the human race, and becoming one has always been Spensa's dream. Since she was a little girl, she has imagined soaring skyward and proving her bravery. But her fate is intertwined with her father's - a pilot himself who was killed years ago when he abruptly deserted his team, leaving Spensa's chances of attending flight school at slim to none.
No one will let Spensa forget what her father did, yet fate works in mysterious ways. Flight school might be a long shot, but she is determined to fly. And an accidental discovery in a long-forgotten cavern might just provide her with a way to claim the stars.
I was a little dubious about this one. Skyward is a Young Adult novel, and it's also science fiction, which isn't Brandon Sanderson's usual wheelhouse.
Sanderson is better known for epic fantasies, though his range is wide — he's written everything from children's books to superhero novels. I have generally found him to be a reliably entertaining author, not quite the fantasy superstar that he is to his biggest fans, but good enough to keep coming back to. He's a genre comfort read. His books will probably not blow me away, but they also will not bore me. Some of his series I have followed faithfully, others I ditched after the first book because they were just too meh.
Well, to my surprise, I really liked Skyward, It doesn't quite rank as my favorite Sanderson novel (Way of Kings still holds that title, and I still have a great love-with-some-loathing of the Mistborn trilogy), but I think Sanderson did the genre right. In fact, it had almost a Heinleinian feel to it. Not the writing style, but the "brilliant kids go on fantastic, dangerous SF adventures" theme, and the tone — it's mostly a war story but it's also got some social and interpersonal drama. Skyward is a worthy descendant of Heinlein's juveniles, updated for the modern era.
The protagonist of Skyward is a teenage girl named Spensa. Spensa lives on a desolate colony world that is under constant attack by the "Krells," an alien race that somehow no one knows anything about even after 80 years of constant warfare. Despite living under constant existential threat, her society has some rigid class divisions. Their civilization is defended by a dwindling cadre of starfighter pilots who sortie out to drive off every Krell incursion. Spensa's father, we learn, was once a great starfighter pilot, but in a critical battle, he turned coward, fleeing from the enemy and forcing his wingman to shoot him down. Spensa has grown up with the shame of being the Coward of Alta's daughter, which of course has filled her with a single driving ambition: to be a starfighter pilot herself.
The story beats are all pretty familiar. Spensa gets into flight school despite basically everyone being against her and the admiral in charge of the military making it clear she's never going to fly. Spensa proves herself determined and overcomes every ridiculous, arbitrary, and unfair obstacle put in her path. Spensa turns out to be great pilot, and wins the friendship and loyalty of her fellow cadets. Some of Spensa's friends die. (You can tell who the expendables are by how much personality they have. Girl with one or two defining personality traits? Dead. Dude who's just a name until he flirts with Spensa? Dead. Guy who's full of contradictions and hidden layers Spensa can't figure out? Probably will live at least until the next book.) Spensa finds out horrible truths and her convictions and beliefs are tested.
Sanderson is known for his intricate worldbuilding and his complex magic systems. He applies that same knack here, where "magic" equals "starfighter technology." I had some quibbles with an entire civilization of refugees living on an asteroid-like colony, eternally at war with a seemingly genocidal enemy, nonetheless having a diverse economy and class-stratified society. And of course as soon as we learn things like no one has ever actually seen a Krell, and for mysterious reasons the Krell never attack with more than 100 ships, even though they clearly have a lot more than that available, and could overwhelm the defenders if they did, we know that Sanderson is going to pull a Big Reveal on us in which Spensa learns that much of what she knows is a lie.
Sanderson's female protagonists, like his writing, can be hit or miss. They come in two varieties: the spunky li'l firebrand who bucks her society's conventions despite being a very traditional sort of girl who blushes a lot (Princess Sarene, Marisi, Shallan), and the emotionally stunted tomboy who bucks her society's conventions and only rarely shows a hint of femininity (Vin, Spensa). It actually works for Spensa, as she's so young and so obsessed with being a starfighter pilot that she doesn't have time for teenage shenanigans — though I still pegged the future love interest almost immediately.
I wasn't a huge fan of the infodump in the last few pages, but it did set us up nicely for the next book, and this is a Sanderson series I'll definitely be continuing with.
Also by Brandon Sanderson: My reviews of Elantris, The Mistborn trilogy, The Alloy of Law, Steelheart, The Way of Kings, and Warbreaker.
My complete list of book reviews.